African Studies Ancient Egypt
Toby Wilkinson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0031


Ancient Egypt produced the longest-lived civilization of the ancient world and one of the most stable systems of government in human history. The surviving artifacts and monuments from the Nile Valley continue to exert a powerful fascination. Early accounts of ancient Egypt were dominated by descriptions of its material culture. The decipherment of hieroglyphics in the early 19th century brought ancient texts to the fore, opening up a window into the ancient Egyptian mind. For half a century, philology and history dominated the subject, and Egyptology was regarded as a subdiscipline of Classics or a branch of Oriental studies. The advent of systematic, scientific excavation in the Nile Valley in the late 19th century brought archaeology to the fore. In the second half of the 20th century, the integration of data from texts and artifacts became key to the development of Egyptology as a discipline. Today, the study of ancient Egypt draws on expertise from a wide range of specialist fields, and this multidisciplinarity is increasingly reflected in the literature. At the same time, an earlier focus on the elite experience, as reflected in the tombs of kings and high officials, has been replaced by a greater interest in the lives of ordinary Egyptians, as revealed by archaeology. However, despite these developments within the discipline, Egyptology has remained rather isolated from the other social sciences in terms of its methodologies and stubbornly immune to external perspectives and theoretical approaches. Topics such as gender and identity, ecology and demography, and even economy and politics have been neglected in favor of the more obvious elements of ancient Egyptian culture, such as language and literature and especially art, architecture, and religion. This is only now beginning to change, as a new generation of scholars embraces insights from archaeological, anthropological, and political theory, sociology, linguistics, and the study of literature. The study of ancient Egypt is slowly moving into the academic mainstream.

General Overviews

The study of ancient Egypt has become a multidisciplinary effort, involving archaeologists, historians, philologists, natural scientists, and a range of experts from the sciences and humanities. As a result, authoritative general overviews of the subject are a complex undertaking, and the literature is not as well served as it might be. The multi-author approach is perhaps most effective at combining different areas of expertise in a single volume. Wilkinson 2007 and Wendrich 2010 are both excellent recent examples. Trigger, et al. 1983 was pioneering in its focus on social history; it remains a useful reference for undergraduate students despite its age. Brewer and Teeter 2007 provides a more up-to-date, though far more general, introduction for students and the interested lay reader. Among single-authored works, Kemp 2006 (and its first edition) is without doubt the most original, stimulating, and wide-ranging survey of ancient Egyptian civilization. As an introduction to the subject, and a spur to deeper engagement, it is currently without a serious rival, and is likely to remain so for some time.

  • Brewer, Douglas J., and Emily Teeter. Egypt and the Egyptians. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Wide-ranging introduction to ancient Egyptian civilization, intended as a student primer. Combines archaeological and documentary evidence to explore all aspects of Egyptian society. Accessible and clear, with an extensive bibliography and illustrations. Addresses difficulties of interpretation.

  • Kemp, Barry J. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2006.

    Original, authoritative, and accessible analysis covering the Predynastic to Late Periods, focusing especially on cultural dynamics and the economy. An invaluable resource for students and scholars. Illustrations are a noteworthy feature. First edition (1989) has a chapter on the city of Amarna, now supplemented by Kemp 2012 (cited under Society and Cultures).

  • Trigger, Bruce G., Barry J. Kemp, David O’Connor, and Alan B. Lloyd. Ancient Egypt: A Social History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511607868

    Pioneering volume covering ancient Egyptian history from the Predynastic period to Alexander the Great’s conquest. Marked a new direction in Egyptological scholarship with its focus on social and economic history and its integration of archaeological and historical data. Remains a valuable reference for students, although its bibliography is now out of date.

  • Wendrich, Willeke, ed. Egyptian Archaeology. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    Collection of fifteen original contributions on diverse aspects of Egyptian civilization, based on archaeological evidence. Topics include theories of state formation, kingship, and the Middle Kingdom as well as neglected subjects such as regionality, gender, foreigners in Egypt, class and society, and identity and personhood. Progressive, insightful, and up-to-date. A rewarding reference work for students.

  • Wilkinson, Toby, ed. The Egyptian World. London: Routledge, 2007.

    Collection of thirty-two original contributions by international specialists, drawing on recent fieldwork and analysis. Arranged in seven thematic sections (environments, institutions, economies, societies, ideologies, aesthetics, and interactions). Includes previously unpublished drawings and photographs. Presents a digest of current research trends in Egyptology and as an examination of the Egyptian world.

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